The Last Word: Bleak and ruthless reality of life beyond Wayne Rooney’s world

The dream could soon be over for 458 players without a club and those managers on the brink

Michael Calvin
Sunday 21 July 2013 00:14
Ins and outs: Wayne Rooney may be 'angry and confused' but Kevin MacDonald is jobless
Ins and outs: Wayne Rooney may be 'angry and confused' but Kevin MacDonald is jobless

A manager at a League Two club delivers an unequivocal message to a journeyman forward, a proven goalscorer seeking the solace of a short-term contract: “Accept £200 a week, or go back to being a tyre fitter in Macclesfield.”

The agent of a teenaged triallist released from the factory farm of a Premier League Academy attempts, cogently but unsuccessfully, to argue that a hat-trick in a pre-season friendly is worth £250 a week.

He is on eight per cent of very little, but is fearful his peers will steal his client should other clubs signal an interest. Agents are hijacking deals, squabbling for loose change. Players are hardly paragons of virtue: one was discovered stringing along six agents supposedly working on his behalf.

Wayne’s world might leave him “angry and confused” but the real world is bleaker than Rooney, or his retinue, can imagine. Professional football in a recession is a forbidding place, where the concept of financial fair play has an entirely different connotation to that envisaged by administrators seeking sanity in the market place.

The plutocrats may play their games – major transfers are the equivalent of blind man’s bluff and tend to feature those for whom the truth is an abstract concept – but though they shape public perception, they are not representative of the industry.

Stars like Rooney, mini corporations with coherent commercial strategies which require constant recycling of the principal product, cannot lose. Their contracts are comfort blankets, which can be discarded well before they lose their warmth.

The average Premier League player is merely inconvenienced if he is shown the door through indolence or inability. At worst, he will slip into the Championship and learn to live with the loss of face and status.

Slither down the pyramid, and rejection carries serious consequences. Mortgages become unsustainable, and the knowledge that footballers are ill-prepared for alternative employment becomes oppressive. These players are habitually referred to as “bodies”.

They are treated with a thoughtless lack of respect and kept around clubs to supplement small first-team squads in the build-up to the new season. They are the ones playing as if their life depends on it, which, in a way, it does.

Several managers of my acquaintance confide they will release their triallists this week. Players who have not secured a club within a fortnight face an endless winter. As of yesterday morning, there were 458 players coming to terms with the fact the dream may have died.

All are out of contract and feature in the Professional Footballers’ Association’s online gallery. This is a showcase for the selective morality of the system. It highlights young men for whom the game is the source of a fragile sense of self-esteem.

The first player on the PFA’s carousel of hope and desperation is Sam Sheridan, a 23-year-old central midfield player who made 28 appearances for Stockport in the Conference last season. The last name on the list is that of Joe Turley, a 19-year-old midfielder released by Cheltenham.

Another simple set of statistics explains rampant self-interest and short-termism. The average lifespan of a manager is less than 18 months – 52 League managers were sacked or resigned last season. Swindon’s Kevin MacDonald has failed to survive even pre-season.

Time is precious. Resources are scarce. The human cost is terrifying. Clarke Carlisle did his profession a great service with his documentary on the dangers of depression last week, prompting many players to share their secrets. Athletes live for the moment. In the next couple of days, that journeyman forward is expected to accept £200 a week as the price of his obsession.

Olympic legacy or Olympic fallacy?

Sebastian Coe was, by his own admission, an indifferent politician. Refreshingly, he lacked the necessary cynicism and self-absorption to cling to the greasy pole of patronage and progress.

That’s why there is something uniquely depressing about his role in this weekend’s media blitz, promoting the myth of an Olympic legacy.

His attempts to lend credibility to creative accounting are unworthy of the idealist who ran the London Games.

Coe’s support of David Cameron’s attempt to present sport in schools as a success story must not be allowed to distort the debate. The Government have failed in their duty of care to our children.

Praise for a £150 million initiative in primary schools is disingenuous, because it fails to mention the £162m taken out of sport by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

Promises of two million more participants, because of the Olympic impetus, have been quietly shelved.

The baseline for official activity estimates has been moved back three years, to 2005, in a transparent attempt to make the figures more palatable.

The Olympic Stadium will be full to its current 75,000 capacity for the Anniversary Games next weekend. Don’t be fooled. It will merely mark a holiday romance which quickly soured.

Saddle sore

Dave Brailsford is close to the staggering achievement of winning back-to-back Tours de France. Barring an unforeseen disaster, Chris Froome will succeed Bradley Wiggins. But those close to Brailsford, their mentor, suggest the toll has been onerous. If cycling’s cynicism drives him away, the sport will slip further into disrepute.

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